Preconceived notions are a funny thing—rarely true and often misleading. So, I was not prepared for the reality of how beauty pageants have actually changed over the years. Since Easter and Passover were taking center stage, my schedule was not as full as usual, so I took advantage of the opportunity to immerse myself in the Sullivan County Pageant held in Callicoon, NY (www.villaroma.com ) last weekend. Given the current onslaught of negative press and (somewhat frightening) reality shows, I was nervous that a “Toddlers and Tiaras” atmosphere would prevail and that the place would be filled with scary moms and overly tanned brats (can you say Honey Boo Boo?) teetering about in high heels, flashing impossibly white teeth while shoving competitors aside for their moment in the limelight.
To be honest, while the cutthroat world of pageantry appears to be thriving elsewhere in the country, here at home, not so much. Discovering a Facebook page devoted to the yearly event, I checked it out and made note that the local pageant site states that it is “far from a beauty contest” and that “we encourage ladies of Sullivan County to ‘go mad or go out’ and make a difference in the community.” That looked good on the screen, but I had my doubts. But I reserved judgment and strode into the theatre, canine beauty queen in tow, with a (somewhat) open mind.
As usual, there were many familiar faces packing the house, which was standing room only by the time I arrived. Yes, there was a cloud of hairspray hanging over the room and yes, there were ladies ranging in age from five to 40 excitedly preparing for the big show (wearing sequins and crowns), but the overall impression was one of genuine camaraderie among the contestants milling about in the makeshift backstage area, primping and soothing each others’ nerves as the lights dimmed and a hush fell over the crowd. Already impressed with the set and lighting, I whipped out my trusty camera and focused on the reigning Miss Sullivan County, AnnaRose Mangiello, as she took center stage and belted out the national anthem in a stunning gown, looking every inch a beauty queen.
As the pageant unfolded, each group paraded in “She’s Gone Country”themed Western wear, cowgirl hats perched on top of perfectly coifed creations, toy guns a blazin’ as Mistress of Ceremonies Sarah Martinez introduced the various categories, including age groups, evening wear and interview segments of the competition. Assisted by the 2012 title holders, Martinez kept the show’s pace moving nicely and it quickly became clear that the pageant’s mission is sincere. “Of course it’s a beauty pageant,” Mongiello had shared with me before the big day, “but honestly, it really is so much more. The Sullivan County pageant is about participating actively in the community and fostering self confidence at a time when young girls often place so much emphasis on the external. I experienced so much personal growth during my reign,” she explained, “and it may sound corny, but I honestly embrace the notion that if you believe in yourself, you can accomplish anything.”
As the judges deliberated, the 2012 titleholders took the stage with their final words, waving at the crowd and wiping away a few tears as images of the past year played across the screen. Honestly, the ladies got to me. Having spent the last 12 months making personal appearances at a variety of events, each of them had platforms that they wanted to share with the community, and AnnaRose “was grateful for the opportunity to raise awareness” of hers—childhood cancer, and the chance to participate in the Make A Wish Foundation (www.wish.org ) and local Relay for Life (www.crystalrunhealthcare.com ) events. She remains committed to continuing her involvement, even though she has passed the crown to her successor.
The 2013 winners include Molly Rampe (Young Miss), Lindsay Cruz (preteen), Alyssa McCave (Teen) Jennifer Nolan (Miss), and Tisha Curry (The Oh-So-PC-Ms), and all appeared thrilled to be representing Sullivan County in the coming year. Before experiencing the Sullivan County Pageant, I thought it would be a hoot and probably offer a few good photo ops, but (IMHO) these ladies are the real deal. Down to earth, sweet and sincere, they won me over with their charm, poise and reality check composure of what a beauty queen should be in the 21st century. Real girls (and women) in a real world, being real. With a tip o’ the hat to all involved, I am forced to admit, “You’ve come a long way, Baby.” Keep up the good work.
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